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Amid misinformation, how do Russians perceive Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine?


A new curfew is set to take effect for residents in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, starting tonight and lasting until Thursday morning at 7 o'clock. According to city officials, people will only be allowed to go outside to head to bomb shelters. As the brutal war in Ukraine continues, many people inside Russia are hearing and seeing a very different narrative, one where words such as war or invasion do not exist. Moscow recently made it a crime to spread what it calls false information about Russia's armed forces or to denigrate Russian soldiers in any way. And there are serious penalties if this is done - up to 15 years in jail. This crackdown on free speech has led many media outlets to leave the country or go underground.

With us on the line is Julia Ioffe, founding partner and Washington correspondent at the media company Puck. Julia, you wrote that people in Russia are not seeing the same war we in the West are seeing. What are they seeing?

JULIA IOFFE: That's right, A. What they're seeing is a very sanitized version of what's happening in Ukraine and one that doesn't really overlap with the reality. According to Russian state media, the war is limited to the east, to the Donbas, you know, where the separatist regions are, and they don't know that the Russians are bombing Kyiv, for example, or even areas outside of Lviv in the far west of the country. They're being told that Russian soldiers are extremely decorous and careful about preserving Ukrainian civilian life, that they're being greeted as liberators, that everybody wants to live under Russian rule, and that there are no civilian casualties on the Ukrainian side.

MARTÍNEZ: Much of the disinformation from Russia comes from state-owned media. Russia has blocked Facebook and Instagram and limited access to TikTok and Twitter. Julia, how much of the disinformation is being spread on social media in Russia?

IOFFE: I mean, that's always been a concern. But, you know, especially as the Kremlin has weaponized these platforms, it has hired, you know, troll armies to counter information it doesn't like and to spread information that it finds helpful. And we've seen the Russian government this time around as well, recruiting people to work on the social media platforms, to push disinformation and to drag people into fights over what's happening in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: And Julia, for people that are trying to find an alternative source for news, are they finding ways around the blocks on social media sites?

IOFFE: Sure, they are. They can use VPNs, which is a technology which masks your location and allows people to access the things that are blocked, like Facebook, Instagram, which is now blocked, Twitter, media outlets that are blocked. But you have to understand that to go and do this, you already have to be looking, right? It's people who already don't believe what the Kremlin information sources are telling them and what the Kremlin is telling them. They know that this is a war against Ukrainian civilians. They already know that they're not - that Russian soldiers are not being greeted as liberators. They are looking for this information. People who are not looking for this information are generally people who don't care or people who trust Kremlin sources of information - for example, Kremlin TV, which is still the biggest source of information for most Russians. And if they trust those sources of information, then they believe, for the most part, what the Kremlin is telling them, and for the most part, they support this war. But the war they're supporting is not the war that exists on the ground in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: And to add an extra layer here, a result of this new law criminalizing what Russia deems to be false information about the war - several foreign media companies have left Russia, and Russian independent media sites have been silent. So, Julia, what are the implications for that?

IOFFE: Well, it makes it even harder. It makes it that much harder to find real and true information about what the Russian army is doing in Ukraine. There is that much less information available to Russians, and that means basically the entire informational space inside Russia is now fully dominated by the Kremlin. And either you're there working as basically the Ministry of Defense's press office or you're underground and trying to tiptoe around these issues. So it's just made real information that much harder to find. And again, that means that most Russians will continue to support the war.

MARTÍNEZ: Julia, you're Russian American. You're a journalist, too. I mean, are you feeling just torn up about what Russia and Russian people are seeing and not being told about all this?

IOFFE: I mean, it's hard to watch, but the issue is that this is basically the culmination - this is the logical conclusion of what Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have been doing for the last 22 years, ever since Putin came to power. And they've been steadily shutting down access to the free press. They've been killing journalists. They've been marginalizing independent media to the point where they're just these little gadflies on the periphery of the Russian informational space.

And what I'm really torn up about is that there are hundreds of phenomenal Russian journalists who are working so hard to tell Russians the truth about their own country. These are people who made very small salaries when they could have made much more by going over to the Kremlin side. They worked at great risk to their personal freedom and their lives, and they did this right up to the end. And now many of them have been forced to flee. And now, because of things like Visa and Mastercard pulling out of Russia, they can't even access their own funds. So some of them are still doing this work from abroad, but just completely cut off from their previous lives and any financial support.

MARTÍNEZ: Julia, one more thing quickly - I know that yesterday a protester stormed a live state news broadcast, yelling, stop the war and held up a sign reading that they're lying to you. Those kinds of things - when they happen, do they make any impact at all, anything?

IOFFE: We don't know if they'll make an impact. We saw that Kremlin TV was reporting on the event, but they blurred out the sign and didn't convey what she was saying. So maybe some people saw it live, but I doubt they do. But I think that it might indicate that there's a shift going on and that there are fewer people inside the system who are willing to do this now that they know how high the cost is.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Julia Ioffe, founding partner and Washington correspondent for Puck. Julia, thanks.

IOFFE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.